Every Tuesday, more than two dozen boys dress in their Sunday best for lunch at Garden Hills Elementary School.
They give up recess to talk about manners, responsibility and giving back to the community.
In short, how to be a true gentleman.
And they like it.
The Garden Hills Gentleman’s Club is the creation of physical-education teacher Austin Myers, who saw a news story about a similar club at a South Carolina school and thought it would be perfect for Garden Hills.
Nearly all the students at the school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because of their family incomes. Many of the 30 boys in the club live below the poverty line or come from single-parent homes, Myers says.
“A lot of our kids are from less-fortunate circumstances,” he says. “Sometimes we focus so much on the educational pieces at school, we kind of miss the pieces that I would call life lessons.”
Beyond reading and math, he wants them to learn good behavior, respect, confidence, positive attitudes and goals — “just things that you may use in your everyday life.”
Myers enlisted fourth-grade teacher Bryan Truttling, a former University of Illinois football player, as co-leader.
The teachers have lined up a series of motivational speakers: Marc Changnon, coordinator of Unit 4’s “Education to Careers” program; State Farm’s chief marketing officer, Rand Harbert; Orlando Thomas, director of achievement and student services for Champaign schools; and state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign.
Harbert, a friend of Myers’ sister, saw the group’s Facebook page and agreed to come speak group about goals and ambition. Changnon plans to hand out “ADYB” wristbands to students who accept his challenge to “Always do your best.”
“I think our kids have always been told what they can’t do, and I would rather start teaching them what they can do,” Myers says.
Students had to apply to be part of the group. The teachers limited it to third- through fifth-graders and still couldn’t take every student who applied, given space constraints.
Myers, who coaches boys’ basketball at Edison Middle School, thought it was important to catch students before they enter the crucial middle school years. Some of them “just haven’t learned a lot of the stuff that I think people take for granted,” he says.
He’d like to double the size of the club in the future, if possible.
“We wanted kids who were really focused on making themselves better people,” Myers says.
Students had to sign a contract promising to stay out of trouble. Anyone who gets two “level 2” referrals, for serious misbehavior such as fighting, will be asked to leave the program, Myers says.
“Just like in life, there are laws and rules you have to obey, and our club is no different,” he says.
On Friday, Myers gathered about two dozen of the boys for reminders about upcoming events. He told them to look up background on Bennett so they could prepare some good questions. He told them not to wait until their mom was getting ready for work Tuesday morning to tell her they needed to dress up that day.
And when do you ask me for a tie if you need one?
“Friday or Monday!” the students replied.
What do they like about the club? Fifth-grader Scyon Harris says Myers and Truttling “teach us how to make ourselves better and be a gentleman.” Fourth-grader Jalen Harmon joined so he could “help people who need help.”
“I applied because I wanted to make myself better, have a great attitude, and I wanted to help the community,” says fifth-grader Dale Rozier.
The teachers want people to know that good things are happening at the school, whose image sometimes suffers from the challenges in the neighborhoods around it.
Truttling says teachers spend so much time correcting kids who misbehave that they overlook students who “behave at a higher level.”
“They normally fly under the radar at a place like this. They’re the forgotten ones,” he says. “If we get them heavily incentivized in doing things and giving back and showing that you can have fun doing the right thing, we’re in a position to change the narrative that surrounds Garden Hills.”
The messages are getting through. The boys already have big goals.
“I might want to be a lawyer, a basketball player or the owner of my own company,” Rozier says.
Harris agreed but also likes the idea of being a police officer. If basketball doesn’t work out for Harmon, he’d like to be an engineer.
And Gaona? “I want to be a professional chef, or a cop.”
Parent support for the group has been strong, with moms posting proud photos of their sons in shirts and ties. The Facebook page has gotten lots of attention, too.
“With everything going on right now, I think people like to see some positive stuff,” Myers says.
The group is busy planning a dinner for parents, where the gym will be set up like a restaurant and the boys will be servers. Myers is still looking for a local restaurant to help sponsor the event.
His ultimate goal? A trip next spring to a Chicago Bulls game as a reward. He’s already plotting a social-media strategy targeting Bulls’ players.
“None of our kids have ever experienced that,” he says.
Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jawurth.
Top: The Garden Hills Gentleman's Club at its first meeting, with teachers Austin Myers (back left) and Bryan Truttling (back right). Photo provided
Middle: Students talk about what they've learned at the Gentleman's Club on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. From left to right are Scyon Harris, Dale Rozier, Jalen Harmon and Angelo Gaona-Hernandez. Heather Coit/News-Gazette
Bottom: Fifth-grader Charles Nash dons a bowtie as he listens to Austin Myers talk about the group's activities on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. Heather Coit/News-Gazette